Protecting Outdoor Spaces

Protecting Outdoor Spaces

Criminals are aware of unsafe zones during the night

College and university campuses have hundreds— even thousands—of outdoor acres to secure, from parking lots to exercise trails. however, many of the standard security solutions— locks, access control and intrusion alarms—used to protect the indoor environment have little impact outdoors.

Securing these outdoor spaces takes a different mindset. Indoors, a lot of effort is spent protecting assets. Outdoors, it’s mostly about protecting people. It’s about the student walking late at night between the library and dorms, and the student heading to the last car in a remote parking lot.

Unlike a K-12 campus, which can be fenced to provide a single public entry, university campuses have many access points. This is often intentional. Administrators actively promote campus entertainment and sporting events to the public. Clinics, research projects and more attract additional community members. Criminals are aware of this accessibility and can easily target anyone who walks through campus.

Fortunately, there are proven security solutions to help keep students and staff safe outside of the classroom, dorm, offices and library. These best practices call for layers of security, each contributing to help protect people in the outdoor environment.

Video surveillance cameras provide real-time and forensic views of the campus and act as a deterrent to criminals. Prominent signage at all main entries and throughout the campus should remind everyone they are under police surveillance.

Emergency stations are another highly-effective electronic security solution. Typically topped with a bright blue light, these easily recognizable stations put students and visitors into immediate contact with campus police. Built-in audio intercoms provide two-way communication without the cost of additional telephone lines.

The stations can also be equipped with video intercoms, providing police with real-time video, helpful in assessing situations. The units can be integrated with existing campus surveillance cameras for a broader view of the area.

These stations are available in IP-based models which connect to the campus network and draw power over the Ethernet using Cat-5e/6 cable. They come as stand-alone towers or wall-mounted boxes. Braille signage and adjustable call button heights allow them to comply with ADA standards.

Other advantages of emergency stations include:

  • They are always available – day and night.
  • Police dispatchers can immediately locate the precise location of calls.
  • Built-in speakers can be used to broadcast emergency information.
  • Two call buttons – one for emergencies and another for non-critical calls, such as requests for campus directions.

Emergency stations are ideal for all campus areas, such as parking lots and garages, large open spaces, in and around dorms, and recreation centers and near elevators. They should be placed so that at least two stations are within view to allow a distressed student the option of choosing the closest unit.

Smartphones, carried by virtually all students, allow campuses to employ one of the dozens of commercial and campus-initiated apps capable of accessing campus police. Most allow the submission of voice and video. They also allow others with the app to track a friend’s progress as they walk to their destination.

However, these apps have limitations. They require a student to enroll in the program and download the necessary app. Few, if any, campuses report full enrollment. Police need to know precisely where to respond to a call for help. While mobile phone tracking can be accurate to within a few feet in ideal conditions, weather, the proximity of cell towers, the signal carrier, topography and other factors can significantly decrease accuracy. Also, remote campus areas may have weak or non-existent phone coverage.

Apps are useless if the phone battery has died or if the phone was stolen in an encounter. And if attacked or chased, students may not have time to pull a phone from a backpack or pocket to open the necessary app. This doesn’t totally diminish the value of these apps as they can serve as another valuable layer of outdoor security.

On any campus, many of the principals of CPTED (Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design) apply. Trimming bushes and trees to deny criminals hiding places is a good idea. Adding lighting and replacing burned-out bulbs helps. Fences and gates help keep people away from potentially dangerous situations.

Trained police officers or security guards on regular patrol—on foot, bike or car—can be an effective deterrent. By being out of the station, they can respond more quickly to reports of a crime.

Another popular idea on many campuses is the use of a safety escort. This may involve campus police or carefully screened student volunteers to accompany students crossing the campus at night.

A slightly different twist on this is in place at the University of California, Davis. There the police chief set up a “Safe Rides” program offering students a ride home after campus transportation ends for the night. The program recently provided rides for 5,000 students in one month. The popularity of the program has the chief looking to expand the service.

There is no one technology, device or service capable of handling all outdoor campus emergencies. It's all about layering multiple solutions. The synergy of video surveillance, emergency towers and stations, CPTED, police patrols, safety escorts and smartphone apps all combine to make a more secure campus.

How much of each layer is required will vary on the size, location, number of students and other factors on each campus. A risk assessment, conducted by an experienced security professional, can help any campus pinpoint its security strengths and weaknesses. The assessment should also lead to a plan that helps administrators determine how and where limited budgets should be spent.

A college or university campus is a complex community. The openness, number of people and the physical size of campuses make them one of the biggest security challenges.

But there has never been more pressure on campuses to be secure. Federal law mandates campuses report crimes, and those reports are important factors when parents help their children select a college or university. Fortunately, there are industry best practices available to make any campus safer and more secure—within buildings and outdoors.

This article originally appeared in the January 2017 issue of Security Today.

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